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LOTHROP: Making sense of Virginia’s quarterback whirlwind

Answering important questions about Virginia’s unique quarterback situation

<p>Lindell Stone (top left), Keytaon Thompson (top right), Ira Armstead (bottom left) and Brennan Armstrong (bottom right) have all contributed in various ways for the Cavaliers.</p>

Lindell Stone (top left), Keytaon Thompson (top right), Ira Armstead (bottom left) and Brennan Armstrong (bottom right) have all contributed in various ways for the Cavaliers.

After Bryce Perkins’ two year run as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of Virginia’s football program, Virginia is back to the same old story under center. The post-Perkins era started with promise as Virginia beat Duke at home. However, the Cavaliers have now suffered four consecutive losses, each more discouraging than the last. 

Since opening the season with a home win, Virginia has played poorly against a pair of teams from North Carolina — NC State and Wake Forest — while playing better than expected against two ACC powerhouses — Clemson and Miami. Virginia’s performance against Wake Forest and Miami can be attributed to sophomore starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s concussion and subsequent absence. Coach Bronco Mendenhall and Offensive Coordinator Robert Anae played three different quarterbacks to compensate for the injury. 

Against Wake Forest, senior quarterback Lindell Stone took the majority of the snaps, but was supplemented by junior quarterback Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson and true freshman quarterback Ira Armstead. More recently, against Miami, the same arrangement — except with Armstrong in place of Stone — saw the Cavaliers push the Hurricanes to the brink in a 14-19 loss. 

The last two weeks have left plenty of question marks for Virginia’s offense — let’s try to answer them.

What was the point of using all those quarterbacks?

Virginia football fans were spoiled watching the extremely talented Perkins lead the team the previous two seasons. It was never realistic to expect Armstrong to immediately replace Perkins’ dual-threat dynamism. Mendenhall and Anae were left with a dilemma when Armstrong entered concussion protocol — how do you replace the production of a gifted quarterback midway through the year and how do you help him once he returns? The answer was to take a page out of “Moneyball.” 

The book, written by Michael Lewis, details how the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics struggled to replace the value of three star baseball players that left the team. Oakland ended up replacing these players through an aggregate of other players. 

Virginia followed a similar strategy, attempting to maximize offensive production by rolling out multiple quarterbacks to replace Amstrong against Wake Forest and to supplement him against Miami. The Cavaliers trusted Stone and Armstrong to throw the ball, and each put up solid — though unspectacular — numbers through the air.  Thompson — an extraordinary runner and below average passer — carried direct snaps 15 times for 95 yards in the two games, gaining more yards than any other Cavalier besides junior tailback Wayne Taulapapa. Thompson displayed valuable patience and speed carrying the ball out of the backfield and even had a solid sideline catch against the Hurricanes. 

Armstead was responsible for the Cavaliers’ first touchdown against Wake Forest, taking a quarterback sweep and sliding just inside the left pylon. Armstead’s touchdown was more than both Thompson and Stone could muster combined that Saturday. Armstead has done a good job serving as a change of pace from the patience and power of Thompson as he darts around bewildered Wake Forest defenders. Unfortunately, he only completed one of his three passes for just three yards. 

Is there any precedent for this unique offensive system?

The short answer is no. The only other example of a team leaning this heavily on multiple healthy quarterbacks is the 2013 Princeton Tigers. The FCS school’s trio of Quinn Epperly, Kedric Bostic and Connor Michelson produced 43.7 points per game and earned a share of the Ivy League title. Each of the three was a multifaceted threat, as they could all run, catch or throw the ball out of the Tiger’s backfield. The threat of being able to run any play at any time helped Princeton vastly outperform expectations and challenge the upper echelon of Ivy League squads.  

Professional teams like the New Orleans Saints have also had success running gadget plays with players like Taysom Hill and Drew Brees. The Philadelphia Eagles have suggested they might do this with veteran Carson Wentz and rookie Jalen Hurts as well, but have yet to do so. However, Hill and Hurts are on the field far less often than Armstead and Thompson. In this way, Virginia’s new strategy is unique in its reliance on balancing aggregate performance. 

Why has the offense been stalling when it’s needed the most?

In a vacuum, Virginia’s offense has played well the last few weeks, picking up first downs and moving the ball easily. However, a trend has emerged. After facing early deficits, the Cavaliers claw back into the game, then stall out when given an opportunity to turn the momentum. 

Penalties have been a big factor as well. Virginia committed six penalties for 48 yards, and a few of the offensive ones were heartbreaking. For example, senior tight end Tony Poljan false-started on second-and-goal at the Miami seven-yard line, Armstrong took a sack and senior kicker Brian Delaney missed a field goal for the second straight game. That penalty created a three- to seven-point swing in a game that was decided by just five points. 

Another crippling penalty wiped out a crucial first down early in the fourth quarter when Virginia was called for offensive holding. Two plays later, Poljan dropped a pass, and Virginia turned the ball over on downs.

The biggest issue that has plagued the Cavaliers’ three-headed monster has been its lack of big plays. In the last two games, the Cavaliers have only managed four plays that gained more than 20 yards — and none of them resulted in scores. The longest of these plays was just a checkdown that senior wide receiver Terrell Jana took 49 yards downfield. 

Opportunities for these plays have been there, but poor execution has killed them. Against Miami, Mendenhall and Anae drew up multiple plays that would have given a playmaker the ball in space, but something always went wrong — an underthrown ball, a missed block or a dropped pass. This can’t keep happening if the Cavaliers want to snap their four-game losing streak. 

Sloppy play, penalties and a lack of explosiveness have, to a degree, made the three-quarterback offensive strategy far less potent than its potential. 

How should Anae proceed the rest of the season?

Armstrong is now back from injury and looked decent Saturday. Accordingly, Mendenhall should — and will — leave him in the driver’s seat. Armstrong is only a sophomore, but this season is quickly losing any sheen of hope. It would be best to give him the keys to the offense and let him develop for better years in 2021 and 2022.

That doesn’t revoke Anae’s creative license, however. There is no point in tanking in college football, so the offensive coordinator should do his best to mix in his other three quarterbacks. Thompson should continue to play out wide and run the wildcat. Armstead should also be allowed to use his speed to catch the defense off-guard. And finally, Anae should probably not let Stone throw 54 passes in 35 minutes. A creative offense — led and executed properly by Armstrong — might be Virginia’s best bet to overcome the odds and fight for bowl eligibility in 2020.

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